It must be late February because the Hockey East standings are a jumbled, chaotic mess. This year, the real fun lies at the bottom portion of the conference, where fourth-place Boston University has a four-point lead on ninth-place Vermont with two weekends remaining.
Six teams are fighting for the final five playoff positions, and it’s conceivable that one or two bounces of the puck could mean the difference between a home-ice playoff series and a seat in front of a television on a grungy couch in the basement of an on-campus apartment.
New Hampshire (14-5-4, 32 points) and Boston College (14-8-2, 30 points) have clinched playoff berths, and Maine (12-9-2, 26 points) isn’t far behind. After that, it’s a free-for-all between BU (11-10-2, 24 points), Northeastern (11-11-1, 23 points), UMass Lowell (10-11-2, 22 points), Massachusetts (11-13-0, 22 points), Merrimack (10-12-1, 21 points) and Vermont (7-10-6, 20 points).
“Everybody is real excited right now,” Lowell senior captain Ben Holmstrom said. “Obviously, the league is pretty knotted up right now, but the guys are excited to finish these last two weeks and still be in the hunt to get home ice and make a run into this thing going into the playoffs.”
Lowell had a blistering start out of the gate but is just 5-7-1 in conference play since Jan. 8. The River Hawks finish with a home-and-home against last-place Providence (mathematically eliminated from playoff contention) before hosting Vermont for two games.
“Everybody definitely looks at the standings, but I don’t think we’re nervous about the bad things that could happen,” Holmstrom said. “We’re taking a positive outlook on this and taking it one day at a time, doing what we have to do. I think if we get caught looking at what-ifs or the negative outcomes of things, then you’re just going to put yourself in a bad frame of mind and expecting things to go bad. It’s in our hands, and we know if we take care of business, then we’re going to be fine.”
About a month ago, UMass looked like a team with an outside shot to take the regular-season crown, but the Minutemen have recently performed with the grace of a Dutch speed skating coach. They have lost seven of their last eight, including five in a row (by a combined 22-5), and they’re coming off of home-and-home sweeps against Northeastern and Merrimack. UMass finishes its regular-season schedule with a solo shot at Boston College before visiting Maine for a pair.
“Guys have been gripping their sticks a little too tight, worrying about the standings, worrying about what is going to happen,” UMass senior co-captain Brett Watson said. “We’ve been working hard the last few weeks. We’ve been working very hard in the games, but for whatever reason, not getting the bounces or sometimes trying to do too much and not working together like we need to be. We have to be mentally tough and battle through this, and it’s a growing experience for our team. If we come through and finish off strong in the next couple of weeks and make the playoffs, it’ll make us a stronger team.”
Merrimack is 4-1-1 in its last six games and has given itself a realistic chance to make the playoffs for the first time in six years. Aside from its sweep of UMass, Merrimack has a win and a tie against Vermont and a victory against Lowell, making its recent unbeaten stretch even more impressive. The Warriors close with two home games against Maine before a home-and-home with Providence, and will need to bounce back from Tuesday’s 7-0 drubbing by BC.
Northeastern is another team that has caught fire, going 7-2-0 in Hockey East play since Jan. 15 and playing the gritty brand of hockey that coach Greg Cronin has demanded out of the Huskies. They’ve got home-and-homes against UNH and BU, though, so the last two weekends will require even more excellence.
Perhaps the team with the most pressure is Vermont, which is a year removed from a Frozen Four berth and its best season since joining Hockey East. The Catamounts have a five-game winless streak (0-2-3) and are 3-5-4 since Jan. 15. They’ve got a home series against BU before visiting Lowell for a pair, and the Catamounts are the only team among playoff hopefuls that doesn’t control its own destiny. Yet, things are so jam-packed in the standings that they could still potentially host a playoff series.
UVM senior co-captain Brian Roloff has helped the Catamounts establish themselves in Hockey East over the last three and a half seasons, but he said this is as much pressure as they’ve faced during his tenure.
“In terms of pressure, I guess you can say it’s bigger this year,” Roloff said. “Coming back [this season], I guess you could say there was pressure because [the Frozen Four] has kind of been on our minds from the start of the season. We’re not in the position where we want to be right now, but I think we can still get to where we want to be.
“It is exciting. We’re getting down to the end here. It’s about that time where it’s do or die. For some of us, especially the seniors, it’s a little nervous. The end is near, and we certainly know that. I think it’s kind of a good nervous, and we’re ready to give it everything we’ve got to be able to take this thing as far as we can.”
No matter where each of these teams is in the standings – and really, they’re all in the same spot – they’re excited to sort out this mess in the final two weekends. The passion will be heightened and the out-of-town scoreboards will receive more attention than their textbooks.
“It’s exciting,” Watson said. “It’s what hockey is all about. You get excited to see it, but you’ve got to take care of your own business first and worry about the other stuff second. It’s fun time of the year. This is always the best time of the year when everyone is competing so hard for these playoff spots and then in the playoffs trying to stay alive.”